• Parabaas
    Parabaas : পরবাস : বাংলা ভাষা, সাহিত্য ও সংস্কৃতি
  • পরবাস | Rabindranath Tagore | Story
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  • Professor : Rabindranath Tagore
    translated from Bengali to English by Carolyn B. Brown

    My classmates in college held me in high esteem. Everyone considered me an expert on all subjects. The main reason for this, whether right or wrong, was that I had an opinion about everything. Although most people aren’t able to say yes or no emphatically, I certainly could. I was not just acquiring opinions, I was forming my own as well. I would deliver lectures, write poetry, pen reviews, and became in every way the object of my classmates’ envy and respect. I could have gone on this way and finished college with my glorious reputation intact. But my position of fame was threatened by Saturn, the Lord of Bad Luck, in the form of a new professor at the college. Our then young professor is now well known, so to avoid tarnishing his illustrious reputation, I’ll conceal his name in this story about my own life. Given his behavior toward me, he’ll be called Bamacharan-babu in the present account. He wasn’t much older than we were. He’d recently placed first in his master’s examination, and at graduation Mr. Toni awarded him his diploma with distinction. But he seemed quite distant and unapproachable, not like one of our contemporaries, perhaps because he was a member of the Brahmo elite. We were a group of modern-day Hindus. Among ourselves we called him Brahmadaitya, as if he were one of those tree-dwelling ghosts.

    We had a debate club, of which I was the sovereign and crowning jewel. Among our thirty-six members, it wouldn’t make much difference if thirty-five were left out—and those thirty-five agreed with my own estimate of the one remaining member’s worth. On the occasion of the society’s annual meeting, I wrote a powerful critique of Carlyle. I was certain that the audience would be awed by its brilliance—there was good reason to be awed, because my essay denounced Carlyle from start to finish. Bamacharan-babu chaired the meeting. When my presentation was over, my classmates, a group of devotees, sat dumbstruck, in awe of the audacity of my argument and my command of the English language. When Bamacharan-babu realized that they had nothing to say, he rose and noted, in a subdued, level voice, that the part of my essay that was stolen from an essay by Mr. Lowell, a renowned American writer, was superb, while it would have been better to omit the small portion that was my own. If he’d said that the views of the young essayist and even his language were in surprising harmony with Lowell’s, his comment would have been true without being objectionable. After this incident, my classmates’ unqualified faith in me was broken. Only Amulyacharan, my most loyal follower, remained entirely unaffected. “Why don’t you let Brahmadaitya hear your Vidyapati play?” he asked me repeatedly. “Let’s see what the critic has to say about it!”

    I had written a first-rate tragedy in verse based on the story of Vidyapati, who loved Rajah Shiv Singh’s wife, Lakshmi-devi, and couldn’t write his poems without having her in sight. Some sticklers for historical fact in my audience argued that such events had never happened, while I would say, that’s history’s loss—if it had happened, history would have been much more compelling and authentic. I’ve already said that the play was first-rate. Amulya called it exceptional. His estimate of me was higher than my own, so I couldn’t fully assess the high esteem in which he held me. Because I was absolutely certain that there wasn’t the slightest trace of a flaw in the play that might warrant criticism, I didn’t think it was a bad idea to have Bamacharan-babu hear it. Thus, a debate club meeting was called a few days later. I presented a reading of my play, and Bamacharan-babu offered his critique.

    I’m not inclined to describe his analysis in detail. In brief, the critique was not favorable. In his opinion, neither the theme nor the characters were clearly delineated. Although large, generalized ideas were expressed, they were as insubstantial as mist, never fully realized in the author’s mind, never attaining life. Just as a scorpion’s sting is in its tail, Bamacharan-babu held off his most poisonous criticism until the end. Before he went back to his seat, he said that not only did many scenes and the main theme of my play imitate Goethe’s Tasso but that some passages were even plagiarized. There was an appropriate response to this accusation. I could have argued that imitation should not provoke censure. Theft is a great art in the realm of literature, even if one is caught. The most eminent writers have done it, including Shakespeare. Even those with the greatest originality in literature dare to steal because they can completely transform something by someone else. The many other fine rebuttals I could have offered that day remained unspoken. Not because of modesty, however. None occurred to me that day. After almost a week had passed, irrefutable responses occurred to me one by one, like supernatural weapons, but there was no immediate opponent, so I was the only one the weapons struck. I’d thought that I could at least present my side to my classmates, but my points were too subtle for such dimwits. They believed that theft is simply theft. If they’d been able to distinguish between my theft and the theft of others, then there would have been little difference between them and me.

    I took the BA examination. Although I wasn’t worried about passing it, I felt no pleasure. Under the assault of a few words from Bamacharan, the lofty temple of my reputation and expectations had fallen into ruins. Only Amulya’s unquestioning respect for me remained undiminished. When the sun of success rose before me in the morning, his respect was like a long shadow before my feet, and when the sun of my success set again in the evening, his respect was still there, stretching out behind me. But I could gain no satisfaction from his respect. It was a vacuous shadow, a foolish devotion, not the bright ray of intelligence.

    *
    My father sent a message, calling me back home—he was going to marry me off. I needed a little more time. Bamacharan-babu’s criticism had provoked an internal mutiny, an uprising that set me against myself. My inner critic had secretly wounded the writer in me. The writer said, I’ll get even—I’ll write again, and then we’ll see who is greater, the critic or me. For my theme I chose universal love, self-sacrifice for the sake of others, and forgiving one’s enemies. Whether in prose or verse, I would write something that would offer Bengali critics something to feast on, something “sublime.” I decided to settle in a beautiful, solitary place to complete the most distinguished work of my career. I resolved not to see anyone for at least a month, neither friends nor strangers.

    When I told Amulya about my plan, he was stunned, as if at that moment he saw the dawning light of our country’s imminent glory on my brow. He held my hand solemnly, and, looking at me wide-eyed, he said gently, “Go, brother, earn eternal glory and undying fame!” I was thrilled. I felt as if he were addressing me as a representative of the proud and awestruck Bengal of the future. Amulya made a small sacrifice as well: for the benefit of our country, he gave up the prospect of my company completely for a full month. My friend let out a deep sigh as he climbed aboard a tram toward home on Cornwallis Street, while I headed off to the gardens of Farashdanga along the Ganges to earn eternal glory and undying fame.

    When I lay on my back in my solitary room on the bank of the Ganges thinking about universal love, drowsiness would overcome me in the middle of the day, and I wouldn’t wake up till five o’clock. I’d feel physically and mentally drained afterward, so I’d go sit on a bench by the road behind the garden and while away the time, entertaining myself by quietly watching the oxcarts and people passing by. When that became intolerable, I’d go sit in the station and listen to the clicking telegraph. I’d watch the passengers gather when the ticket bell rang, jostling each other as the red-eyed, thousand-footed iron reptile arrived, huffing and puffing, and then left with a dreadful shriek. When I returned home, I ate and, in the absence of any companion, went to bed early. With no reason to get up early, I stayed in bed till eight or nine o’clock. My body was a wreck, and universal love remained a riddle. I was unaccustomed to living alone—with no companions, the bank of the Ganges began to feel like a deserted cremation ground. Amulya was such a fool that it didn’t occur to him to break his promise for even a day.

    Before this, when I was in Calcutta, I used to imagine sitting with my legs stretched out under the shade of a banyan tree, with a babbling brook flowing by at my feet—a spellbound poet at the center, surrounded by a realm of imagination and nature, flowers in the garden, birds in the branches, stars in the sky, universal love in his heart, and a steady stream of emotions flowing into remarkable verse from the tip of his pen. But where was nature and where was the nature poet; where was the universe and where was its lover! I didn’t spend even one day out in the garden. The flowers blossomed, the stars rose in the sky, the shade fell under the banyan, and I, a homebody, would stay in my room.

    Because I couldn’t find a way to prove my worth, my anger at Bamacharan kept growing. At the time, a controversy had arisen among educated Bengalis over child marriage, which Bamacharan opposed. According to rumor, he had fallen in love with a young girl and was hoping to be married soon. The subject struck me as hilarious—my epic poem on universal love hadn’t taken off, so in the meantime I drafted a biting satire with Bamacharan as the ideal hero and an imaginary girl named Kadambakali Majumdar as the heroine. I was preparing to travel back to Calcutta after penning this immortal piece when my plans were interrupted.

    *
    One afternoon, instead of going to the station, I was looking idly around the garden house. I’d had no reason to set foot in most of the rooms before. I hadn’t the least bit of curiosity or interest in my surroundings. That day, just to pass the time, I wandered all over, like a fallen leaf tossed by the wind. I opened a door in the room on the north side and found myself on a small verandah. Beyond it, two big jamun trees stood facing each other by the wall on the far edge of the garden. Through the gap between the two trees, part of a row of tall bakul trees in another garden could be seen. But all this I observed later. I had no chance to see any of it right then. All I saw was a sixteen-year-old girl, strolling with her head bent down, reading the book she held in her hand.

    At that particular moment, any form of philosophical deliberation was beyond me, but after a few days I remembered that Dushyanta had been riding his chariot in the forest, hunting with his mighty bow and arrows, but without killing a stag. What he chanced to see when he stood screened by the trees for ten minutes, what he heard was the most extraordinary experience of his entire life. I too had set out hunting poetry with my pencil, pen, and paper, but poor universal love escaped, and screened by a pair of jamun trees, I saw what there was to see. A man does not see such a sight twice in a lifetime.

    I haven’t seen much of the world. I haven’t boarded a ship, traveled by balloon, or gone down into a coal mine, but before I ventured onto this verandah, I’d had no inkling of how ignorant and misguided I’d been in my own ideals. My twenty-first year was almost over. I can’t say that I hadn’t formed a mental image of ideal feminine beauty by then. I had adorned that image in various garments and ornaments and placed it in various poses, but never in my remotest dreams had I expected or even hoped to see her with shoes on her feet, wearing a blouse, a book in her hand. But one spring afternoon, in the dappled light under the thick canopy of new leaves on the row of old trees, my Lakshmi suddenly appeared on the garden path beyond the pair of jamun trees, with shoes on her feet, wearing a blouse, and a book in her hand—and I didn’t say a word.

    The vision lasted no more than two minutes. I tried without success to find different vantage points for another glimpse. That evening, I sat beneath the banyan tree with my legs stretched out for the first time—the evening star rose with a tranquil smile before my eyes, above the dense row of trees on the other side of the river, and, as I watched, the lovely evening opened the unguarded door of her vast solitary bridal chamber and waited in silence.

    The book that I’d seen in her hand held a new mystery for me. I began wondering, what kind of book was it? Fiction or poetry? What was it about? What episode of a story or moving passage of verse was printed on that open page, on which sunlight and shadows fell that afternoon, under the rustling leaves of the bakul grove, on which those eyes, curious and attentive, rested? I also wondered what shifting emotions arose within that delicate brow, framed by tendrils of flowing dark hair, and what realm of matchless beauty the perennial magic of poetry created in the private solitude of her virgin heart—I can’t possibly convey clearly all the questions I spent half the night pondering. But who told me she wasn’t married? It was the one who assured Dushyanta, my legendary predecessor as a lover, about Shakuntala long before they met. It is the heart’s longings, the teller of all sorts of truths and lies. Some come true, some don’t, but for Dushyanta and me, it came true. It wouldn’t have been difficult to find out whether my mysterious neighbor was married or not, whether she was high caste or low, but I didn’t try. Instead, I craned my neck like a chakor bird, trying to follow my beloved moon’s journey across the sky from many thousands of miles away.

    At noon the next day, I hired a small boat on the riverbank. I told the boatman not to row, so we floated on the current as I surveyed the shore. Though it was not exactly a hut like Kanva’s, my Shakuntala’s hermitage was on the bank of the Ganges. The steps from the landing rose up to the large house, with a verandah shaded by the overhang of the wooden roof. As my boat floated quietly up to the landing, I saw my modern-day Shakuntala sitting on the floor of the verandah. Behind her was a low cot on which a few books were lying, with strands of her hair fanned out over them. She was looking upward, leaning with her left arm on the cot, propping up her head. Her face wasn’t visible from the boat, only the delicate curve of her graceful neck. Her petal-like feet were bare, one on the top step of the verandah and one on the step below it, with the black border of her sari swirling around them. A book had fallen, unattended, from her limp right hand to the ground. It was as if she were an incarnation of the goddess of midday—suddenly, in the midst of the workaday world, a stilled image of beauty at rest. The Ganges at her feet, the other shore in the distance, and the blazing blue sky high above—all focused silently, intently, on that lovely soul, on her bare feet, her languid left arm, the upward curve of her neck.

    I kept looking as long as I could, my gaze washing over her lotus-like feet again and again. When the boat finally drifted past and trees screened the riverbank, suddenly, as if remembering something I’d forgotten, I burst out: “Boatman! I can’t go on to Hooghly today, we need to head back home.” But now he had to row against the current, and I shrank from the sound of the oars, which seemed to be slapping something sentient, something delicate and lovely, infinite and eternal, yet timid as a fawn. As the boat neared the landing, my neighbor first looked up at the sound of the oars, gazing at my boat with mild curiosity, but as soon as she saw me staring at her, she rushed into the house. It was, I thought, as if I had struck her, as if I’d hurt her somehow!

    She had stood up so quickly that a half-eaten, barely ripe guava had fallen from her lap and rolled down the steps toward the landing. I wanted that bitten, kissed fruit with all my heart, but the boatman’s presence embarrassed me. I watched the fruit grow distant as we moved on and saw the gradually rising water of the hungry tide lapping at it impatiently, trying to bring it under its control, over and over again. Crossing wearily to the landing by my house, I imagined that in half an hour its shameless persistence would be rewarded. I stretched my legs out in the shade of the banyan tree all day and began dreaming of nature humbled beneath a pair of tender feet—the sky aglow, the earth enthralled, the wind restless, and in their midst the calm, tranquil beauty of two bare feet, which were unaware that all around them their dust was awakening springtime’s youthful passion to intoxication.

    Until now, nature had seemed fractured and remote, with no connection to me—river, forest, and sky all stood apart. Now that I’d seen an image of beauty in the midst of that vast fragmented cosmos, it all became one. Now the world around me was whole and beautiful. Wordlessly, it constantly beseeched me: “I am mute, you give me speech—you make the inarticulate prayers that rise up in my heart ring out in rhyme, rhythm, and melody in your elegant human language!” Nature’s silent appeal plucked the strings of my heart. I heard only this song repeating, “Oh beauty, oh enchantress, oh conqueror of the universe, oh single flame for the mothlike soul, oh boundless life, oh sweet everlasting death.” I couldn’t finish the song, couldn’t make it cohere. I couldn’t give it a clear form, couldn’t shape it into verse. I felt within me an inexpressible, immeasurable power rising like a floodtide that I still couldn’t control, but when I can, divine music will suddenly form in my throat and a miraculous glow on my brow.

    Meanwhile, a boat from Naihati Station crossed over to the landing by my garden. Amulya climbed down, smiling, with an umbrella under his arm and a shawl draped around his shoulders. I’d like to think that no one would experience the feeling that came over me when I saw my friend unexpectedly, not even toward an enemy. When he saw me sitting distraught in the shade under the banyan tree at two o’clock in the afternoon, Amulya seemed to grow wary. He approached slowly, gingerly, afraid that part of Bengal’s best-ever epic would plunge into the water like a wild goose startled by the sound of footsteps. As I watched him, my anger and annoyance grew. “Hey, Amulya!” I said. “What’s the matter? Did you get a thorn stuck in your foot?”

    Amulya thought I was joking. He approached with a grin and, using the cloth tucked into his dhoti, methodically brushed off a place under the tree. Pulling out a handkerchief, he unfolded it, spread it out, and sat down on it carefully. “That satire you sent me, I couldn’t keep from laughing when I read it,” he said, and then he started reciting snatches of it, laughing so hard he almost suffocated.

    I felt that even if I tore out the tree—the one that the pen I’d used writing the satire was made from—by the roots and made a bonfire and burnt the satire to ashes, it wouldn’t ease my distress.

    “How far along is your poem?” Amulya asked timidly.

    Hearing this annoyed me all the more, and I said to myself, my poem is just like your brain. To his face, I said, “Later, brother, let’s not bother about that now.”

    Inquisitive by nature, Amulya couldn’t help looking around. I was afraid of this, so I shut the north door. “What’s over there?” he asked. “Nothing,” I said. This is the biggest lie I’d ever told in my life.

    After tormenting me in various ways for two days, on the third evening Amulya left on the train. For those two days I didn’t go toward the north side of the garden or even look in that direction. I guarded that edge of my garden like a miser protecting his treasure. As soon as Amulya left, I ran up the steps, opened the door, and rushed onto the verandah on the north side of the house. Overhead, the light of the full moon filled the open sky. Below, under the rows of trees, a lattice of branches hid the moonlight, creating profound darkness. All this was filled with the prolonged sigh of the rustling leaves, the intense fragrance of the blossoms fallen from the bakul trees, and the dazed silence of the evening woods. In the midst of it, my neighbor was strolling with her elderly, grey-bearded father, holding his right hand and telling him something. The old man bent toward her slightly—affectionately but respectfully—listening with silent attention. There was nothing to interrupt this pure, loving exchange. The occasional sound of oars on the calm evening river faded in the distance, and a few birds, momentarily wakened, chirped softly in the countless nests among the thick branches. I felt as if my heart would burst, whether from melancholy or delight. It was as if my entire being were expanding to merge with that wondrous shadowland. I started to feel gentle footsteps on my chest, and I could hear sweet whispering close to my ears as if I were at one with the leaves. The anguish at the heart of the vast, unconscious natural world seemed to vibrate through my bones. I felt as if I could understand the pain and frustration of the earth that lies beneath our feet but can’t cling to them, of the boughs that bend down from the tall trees and hear our words but can’t understand them. I also felt those footsteps and those whispers throughout my whole body, heart and soul, but I felt as if I were falling to pieces because I had no way to grasp them.

    The next day, I couldn’t restrain myself anymore. I went to visit my neighbors in the morning. With a large cup of tea by his elbow, Bhabanath-babu was peering through his glasses at an old, blue-penciled edition by Hamilton. When I entered the room, he looked at me blankly over the top of his glasses for a while, unable to pull his attention away from his book all at once. Finally, he came to himself with a start, ready to welcome me. I introduced myself briefly. He seemed flustered for some reason and couldn’t find the case for his glasses. Out of the blue, he asked, “Would you like some tea?”

    “I wouldn’t mind a cup,” I said, even though I don’t usually drink tea.

    Rising quickly, Bhabanath-babu started calling, “Kiran, Kiran.”

    From the doorway, I heard a sweet voice ask, “What is it, father?” As I turned, I saw the hermit Kanva’s daughter about to flee like a startled doe as soon as she spotted me.

    Bhabanath-babu called her back and introduced me: “This is our neighbor Mahindrakumar-babu.” And to me, he said, “This is my daughter, Kiranbala.”

    I had no idea what I should do. Meanwhile, Kiran greeted me formally, with her palms pressed together. Recovering myself, I returned her greeting.

    “Please, dear, bring a cup of tea for Mahindra-babu,” Bhabanath-babu said.

    I felt very bashful, but before I could open my mouth to speak to her, Kiran left the room. I felt as if immortal Bholanath on Mount Kailash had told his daughter Lakshmi herself to bring a cup of tea for a guest. For the guest, it would certainly be pure ambrosia, but still, where were his sidekicks, Nandi and Bhringi?

    *
    I was now a daily visitor at Bhabanath-babu’s house. I used to really dread tea, but now I’d become addicted to drinking it both morning and evening.

    I’d read a German scholar’s history of modern philosophy for my BA examination shortly before I arrived, so I pretended for a while that discussing philosophy was my only reason for visiting Bhabanath-babu. I felt sorry for him because he was still devoting himself to outdated books such as Hamilton’s, so I had no qualms about exhibiting my new erudition. Bhabanath-babu was such a good man, so diffident about everything that he accepted whatever a mere youth like me had to say. If he had to venture even a slight qualification, he became uncomfortable, not wishing to offend me. Kiran would rush off on some pretext in the midst of our philosophical discussions. While this saddened me, it also made me feel proud. The intricacies of our learned discussions were too much for Kiran. She knew that to measure my lofty knowledge, she’d need to set her sights very high.

    When I watched Kiran from a distance, she could have been Shakuntala or Damayanti or another character from the Mahabharata in any number of settings. Now, in her home, I knew her as “Kiran.” No longer a lovely semblance of various heroines of the world, she was now simply Kiran. A descendant of a hundred centuries of poetry, having forsaken the paradise of eternal youth, she now lived as a young unmarried woman in a particular Bengali household. She spent time chatting with me in my mother tongue about everyday matters, laughing unaffectedly about insignificant things. Like the girls in all our families, she wore a pair of gold bangles. Although her necklace was nothing special, it was very sweet. Much to my pleasure, the end of her sari would sometimes get caught on her braid or slip off her shoulder because, living at home with her father, she hadn’t much practice. She was not imaginary, she was genuine, she was Kiran—neither more nor less. Although she wasn’t mine, she belonged to all of us. That’s why my heart was constantly overflowing with gratitude toward her.

    One day, I was holding forth enthusiastically about the relativity of knowledge with Bhabanath-babu. After the discussion had gone on for a while, Kiran left and then returned to the verandah a little while later with a portable stove and some cooking utensils. As she put them down, she scolded Bhabanath-babu: “Father, why are you making Mahindra-babu talk pointlessly about such difficult subjects? Come, Mahindra-babu, wouldn’t it be better if you help me with the cooking?”

    Bhabanath-babu hadn’t done anything wrong, and Kiran was aware of that. But Bhabanath-babu, as if he were the guilty one, was contrite. “That’s true!” he said, with a little smile. “All right, we’ll come back to it some other time.” Unperturbed, he dedicated himself once more to his daily studies.

    On another afternoon, I had again brought up a serious subject, astounding Bhabanath-babu, when Kiran intervened. “Mahindra-babu,” she said, “could you lend me hand? Could you drive in these nails to fasten the vine to the wall? I can’t reach that high.” I got up cheerfully, and Bhabanath-babu settled down happily to read as well. This is the way it usually went. Whenever I was about to bring up a weighty subject with Bhabanath-babu, Kiran would come up with one task or another as an excuse for interrupting. This delighted me. I realized that Kiran had caught me out. Somehow, she’d figured out that the philosophical discussions with Bhabanath-babu were not the happiest part of my life.

    Whenever I was settling into a complex question, investigating the relation between material objects and our sensory knowledge, Kiran would come and say, “Mahindra-babu, come let me show you my eggplant patch by the kitchen!” Our notion that the sky is limitless is mere conjecture. It’s not altogether impossible that it somehow somewhere has a limit beyond our experience and the power of our imagination. Just as I was making a point like this, Kiran would come and say, “Mahindra-babu, two of the mangoes are ripe. Can you grab the branch and pull it down lower for me?”

    What liberation! What freedom! In an instant, I’d escaped from the middle of a vast ocean onto a lovely beach. However impenetrable and complex the tangle of uncertainties about the infinite heavens and the material world might be, there was not the slightest bit of confusion or doubt about Kiran’s eggplant patch or mango grove. They might not be worth mentioning in an epic or a novel, but in life their logic was as appealing as an island in the middle of an ocean. Anyone who has kept afloat in the water for a long time knows what a relief it is to set foot on land. It may have been true that I’d been imagining the sea of love for a long time, but whether I could keep afloat in it forever I couldn’t say. There the sky and sea are infinite, the limited concerns of our daily lives are completely cast aside, and no trace of anything trivial exists. Feelings are expressed only in verse and song, and if you sink, you won’t touch bottom anywhere. When Kiran grabbed this wretched drowning man by his hair and dragged him to her mangoes and eggplants, I was saved, with my feet on the ground. I saw that sitting on the verandah and cooking kedgeree, leaning a ladder on the wall and hammering a nail, and searching for green limes among the thick green leaves of a lime tree could bring an amazing sense of pleasure with almost no effort. The words that come spontaneously, the smile that spreads on its own, the bit of light coming from the sky, and the shadows falling from the trees—these are enough. Besides, I had a golden wand with me, my youth; a philosopher’s stone, my love; an immortal wish-granting tree, my steadfast self-confidence. I was the victor. I was Indra, king of the gods, and I could see nothing to hinder Uchchaihshrava, my flying horse. Kiran, my Kiran—I had no doubts. I still couldn’t say the words outright, but they tore through my heart like lightning and danced through my soul. Kiran, my Kiran! I hadn’t come in close contact with women outside my family before this. I was unacquainted with the ways of modern, educated women who had left purdah behind. Thus, I didn’t know where the limits of propriety were or where the claims of love lay, nor did I know why I might not be loved or might somehow be found wanting.

    Whenever Kiran handed me a cup of tea, I would also accept a potful of Kiran’s love along with it. Whenever I drank the tea, I would think that accepting it meant something and that Kiran’s offering it meant something too. “Mahindra-babu, will you come tomorrow?” Whenever Kiran asked a simple question, it sounded like a song—

      What’s your secret spell, my friend, your secret spell?
      Only you can beguile a woman’s heart so well!

    I would give a simple answer, “I’ll come tomorrow by eight.” In these words could Kiran hear—

      You’re the apple of my eye, my pearl,
      My perfect treasure, my whole world.

    All my days and nights were ambrosial. From moment to moment, all my thoughts and imaginings seemed to bind Kiran to me like vines twining around tender new branches. My mind was full of ideas about what I would teach her and how I would tutor her when the opportunity arose, what I would tell her, and what I would show her. I even decided that I would provide her with enough instruction so that she would be interested in the German scholar’s work on the history of modern philosophy. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be able to understand me fully. I would guide her through the beautiful world of English poetry and literature. Smiling, I said to myself, Kiran, for me your mango grove and eggplant patch are a new kingdom. Even in my dreams, I never imagined that besides eggplants and green mangoes knocked down by the wind, rare immortal fruits were also there for the taking. But when the time comes, I’ll take you to a world where no eggplant grows but where you’ll never feel its absence—the kingdom of knowledge, the paradise of ideas.

    Just as the sun goes down and the pale evening star gradually grows brighter with gathering night, so too did Kiran come with joy and grace into the full bloom of womanhood during those days. She seemed to rise above her household, shining the light of good fortune and happiness all around her. Her radiance made her father’s grey hair gleam like a saintly halo and imprinted a luminous signature of Kiran’s sweet name on every beat of my overflowing heart.

    Meanwhile, my vacation was coming to an end, and my father’s affectionate appeal to me to come home and get married was about to turn into a firm command. In addition, I was increasingly worried about the difficulty of restraining Amulya, who any day now was going to trample my lotus garden like a stampeding elephant’s four big feet. I began wondering how I could quickly express my heart’s desire and turn my love into marriage.

    *
    When I went to Bhabanath-babu’s house at noon one day, I saw him lying on his cot in the summer heat. He had fallen asleep, and by the verandah Kiran sat on a step on the deserted landing by the Ganges, reading a book. I stepped behind her quietly and saw that it was a new poetry anthology. On the open page there was a passage from a poem by Shelley, with a line drawn neatly in red ink next to it. After reading the poem, Kiran let out a deep sigh and gazed dreamily toward the farthest reaches of the sky. It seemed as if she must have read that poem ten times during the course of an hour and set her own heart’s sail into the blue sky with a single long, ardent sigh. I don’t know for whom Shelley wrote the poem. Although it certainly wasn’t written for a young Bengali man named Mahindranath, I was convinced that today no one but I had a right to this song of praise. Kiran had drawn a blood-red pencil mark beside the poem from the depths of her heart, casting a magic spell that made the poem now hers and also mine. Holding back my elation, I simply asked, “What are you reading?”

    It was as if a boat in full sail had struck a sandbar. Kiran, startled, shut the book quickly and tucked it out of sight under the loose end of her sari. “Can I take a look at that book?” I asked with a smile.

    Kiran seemed upset. “No, no,” she answered briskly as she got up. “Never mind the book.”

    I sat down on the step just below her and brought up the subject of English poetry, partly for Kiran’s literary instruction and also because I could express my feelings by quoting the words of English poets. In the heat of the sun and in the profound stillness, the small sounds from the water and the shore came ever so sweetly and gently, like a mother’s murmured lullaby.

    Kiran seemed to grow restless. “Father is sitting by himself,” she said. “Don’t you want to finish your discussion about the infinite heavens?”

    The infinite heavens will go on forever, I thought, and discussions about it won’t end anytime soon, but life is short, and the right moment is rare and fleeting. “I’ve brought some poems,” I said, avoiding Kiran’s question. “Why don’t I read them to you?”

    “I’ll listen to them tomorrow,” she replied. She stood up and looked toward the house. “Father,” she called, “Mahindra-babu is here!”

    Bhabanath-babu woke up. Opening his guileless eyes, he began fidgeting like a child. I felt as if I’d been punched in the chest. I went to Bhabanath-babu’s room and started discussing the infinite heavens. Kiran went upstairs with her book, perhaps to read it in the solitude of her bedroom without being disturbed.

    The next day, a clipping from the Statesman marked with red pencil came in the mail—it was the published results of the BA exam. The first thing to strike my eye was the name Kiranbala Bandyopadhyay in the first-division column. My own name was nowhere to be found—not in the first, second, or third division.

    Along with the pain of having failed the exam came the sudden suspicion that Kiranbala Bandyopadhyay might be our Kiranbala. Even though she had never told me that she was in college or that she’d taken the exam, my suspicions grew stronger. I realized that the elderly father and his daughter never talked about themselves, and I had been so engaged in talking about myself and showing off my own learning that I had failed to inquire properly about them.

    I remembered holding forth about the German scholar’s history of philosophy I’d read recently and having told Kiran one day, “If I have a chance to introduce you to a few books someday, I can give you a clear picture of English poetry.”

    Kiranbala earned honors in philosophy and a first-class pass in literature. What if it’s the same Kiran!

    I finally reignited the embers of my pride and said, “Never mind, my writing will be a monument to my success.” I picked up my notebook and, holding my head higher than ever, strode resolutely toward Bhabanath-babu’s garden.

    No one was in his room. I began looking over the old man’s books carefully. I saw a copy of the German scholar’s history of philosophy lying abandoned in a corner. When I opened it, I saw that its margins were filled with notes in Bhabanath-babu’s handwriting. The old man had tutored his daughter himself. I no longer had any doubt.

    Bhabanath-babu came into the room looking unusually radiant, as if he’d just finished a morning bath, immersed in good news. With a harsh laugh, I spoke abruptly, somewhat haughtily, “Bhabanath-babu, I’ve failed the exam.”

    I would now be viewed as one of those great men who fail their school exams but take the highest rank in the test of life. Success in an examination, in a trade or business, or in a job is a sign of mediocrity. Only the lowest and the highest class of people have the rare talent for failure. Bhabanath-babu’s face expressed affectionate sympathy—he couldn’t tell me now about his daughter’s passing the exam, but he was a bit taken aback by my unusually bitter mood. He was too simple-hearted to understand why I was so proud.

    Just then, shy and glowing, like a vine after a gentle rain, Kiran entered the room accompanied by Bamacharan-babu, the new professor at our college. There was nothing left for me to understand. That night I went home and burned the notebook that contained my writing. I went back to my village and got married.

    I never wrote the great epic that I’d planned to write on the bank of the Ganges, but my life was the better for it.


    (“অধ্যাপক,” 1898)


    Excerpted from Cautionary Tales: Selected Short Stories by Rabindranath Tagore, translated from Bengali by Carolyn B. Brown (forthcoming, Parabaas, 2024).


    অলংকরণ (Artwork) : from personal collection of Carolyn B. Brown
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